England vs India: Expect lots of spice as rivals resume battle in longest series

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Target: Ben Stokes  (Getty Images)
Target: Ben Stokes (Getty Images)

Ten months late, in a different city, with an unusual start time and with the teams markedly changed, last summer’s 2021 series between England and India begins its final chapter tomorrow.

This is uncharted territory. Even Jimmy Anderson, in line to play his 172nd Test, admitted yesterday: “I have never experienced this before.”

It is easy to ask: what is this game? The most eagerly-anticipated Test of the summer? A one-off exhibition? A contractual obligation that keeps coffers full? A genuine decider (India lead the five-match series 2-1!)? An opportunity to pick up World Test Championship points? Somewhere in the middle?

Last summer was messy, not least because the call-off came just three hours before the scheduled start, with fans already at the ground. India had made clear before the tour that they did not really fancy a Fifth Test, with a rearranged IPL looming. They got their wish, when they were “regrettably unable to field a team” due to “fears of a further increase in the number of Covid cases inside the camp”.

Following coach Ravi Shastri’s book launch, they had four cases among the backroom staff but no players with the virus. The following morning, they were on a plane to the UAE to complete the IPL. The world has changed a lot in 10 months, as India’s captain, Rohit Sharma, is currently struggling to shake the virus in time for the rescheduled game. The wrangling was bitter, with the ECB initially claiming the game had been “forfeited” by India, before a backtrack. Really, the ECB had little choice but to accept mighty India’s decision and have done well to get the game rescheduled, saving millions of pounds, even if it puts a squeeze on the summer’s schedule.

The venue has had to move from Manchester to Birmingham, because Old Trafford already had the Red Hot Chili Peppers booked in too close to this date. Instead, Manchester will host South Africa later in August. Indian TV means the start time of this game has moved too, to 10.30.

Only three of England’s likely XI last time — Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Anderson (right, yesterday) — will play. Four have been dropped, three are injured and one has retired (Moeen Ali, who has since made a comeback. Root, head coach Chris Silverwood and managing director Ashley Giles are no longer in post, nor are Tom Harrison and Ian Watmore, the ECB’s leaders on the frontline of the fallout with their Indian counterparts.

There has been plenty of change for India, too. Virat Kohli is back in the ranks and without a century for approaching three years, KL Rahul is injured, Ajinkya Rahane has been dropped and Rohit has Covid. Perhaps Ravi Ashwin, left out all summer last year, will get a game. Behind the scenes, Shastri is no longer head coach, with Rahul Dravid taking over.

For England, there is simply the opportunity to keep riding Brendon McCullum’s wave. They have so much to prove, but are in a better position to win this game than they were in September.

Not only are the personnel different, but so is their style. They surpassed even their own expectations against New Zealand, but India — even an undercooked, much-changed India — will surely bite back at their gallivanting approach more aggressively.

Anderson recalled the “needle” in last year’s series that was ever-present under Kohli’s captaincy and saw Jasprit Bumrah bowl a series of no-balls at him. Even in the borderless age of the IPL, there will be spice between these sides.

Having bowled first in all three games so far, it will be interesting to see how England respond if and when they are asked to make the running. Their new-found success has been reactive.

Had McCullum not turned things around so impressively, this game would be a fearful prospect that England could do without. But things are looking up, which makes it a thrilling prospect. Much better late than never.

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